National Catholic Register


St. Paul and Justification

BY The Editors

November 30-December 6, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/24/08 at 12:22 PM


Weekly General Audience November 19, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Paul at his general audience on Nov. 19. He spoke about St. Paul’s teaching on justification. St. Paul realized that we are made righteous before God only by faith in Christ and not by any merit of our own. Our justification is God’s gift to us, revealed in the mystery of the cross. Wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption are God’s gifts to us through Christ. Paul rejected a righteousness based on the Law and its works, yet he recognized that the Law finds its end in Christ and its fulfillment in the new commandment of love.

Dear brothers and sisters,

On the journey we have undertaken under the direction of St. Paul, let us now reflect on a topic that was the center of controversy during the Reformation: the question of justification.

How does a man become righteous in the eyes of God? When Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a very successful man. He was beyond reproach as regards everything related to justice based on the Law (see Philippians 3:6).

He surpassed many of his peers in observing the precepts of Moses. And he was zealous in upholding the traditions of his ancestors (see Galatians 1:14).

Paul’s Conversion

The blinding light on the road to Damascus radically changed his life. He began to see all his merits and achievements in his unfailing pursuit of religion as “loss” in light of the sublime happiness of knowing Jesus Christ (see Philippians 3:8).

The Letter to the Philippians is a moving testimony to Paul’s journey from justice based on the Law and achieved by observing a set of prescribed works to a justice based on faith in Christ. He realized that everything that had seemed to him as gain up until that point was, in reality, a loss before God.

Because of this, he decided to devote his whole life to Jesus Christ (see Philippians 3:7). The treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price were not the works of the Law, but Jesus Christ, his savior.

The relationship between Paul and the risen Christ took on such a depth that he felt impelled to make it known that Christ was not only his life but his reason for living, to the point that even death would be a gain for him in his efforts to be united with him (see Philippians 1:21).

He did not despise life, but he understood that — for him — living had no other purpose. As if he were in a race, his only desire was to be united with Christ and to remain with him always.

The risen Christ became the beginning and end of his existence, the reason and goal of the race. It was only his concern for the growth in faith of those he had evangelized as well as his concern for all the churches he had founded (see 2 Corinthians 11:28) that led him to slow down his pace in the race toward his one true Lord in order to care for his disciples, so that together they would be able to run to the finish line.

If in his previous observance of the Law he had no grounds for reproach from the point of view of moral integrity, once Christ took over his life, he preferred not to judge himself (see 1 Corinthians 4:3-4) but limited himself to speaking about his race to conquer the one who had conquered him (see Philippians 3:12).

Faith and Works

It is precisely because of this personal experience of a relationship with Jesus that Paul places at the center of his message an irreducible contrast between two alternative paths to justice: one based on the works of the Law and the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ.

Therefore, this juxtaposition of justice through the works of the Law and justice through faith in Christ becomes a dominant theme throughout his letters: “We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, yet who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:15-16).

He goes on to tell the Christians of Rome that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

Furthermore, he adds, “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Romans 3:28). Martin Luther translated this point as “justified by faith alone.” I will return to this at the end of my catechesis.

Freedom from the Law

First of all, we must clarify what is the “Law,” from which we have been freed, and what are those “works of the Law” that do not justify.

Within the community of Corinth, the opinion already existed — a question that would return systematically throughout history — that maintained it was a question of moral law and that Christian freedom consisted, therefore, in being free from ethics.

So, the catchphrase “everything is licit for me” was circulating in Corinth. It is obvious that this interpretation is erroneous: Christian liberty is not libertinism; the freedom of which St. Paul speaks is not freedom from doing good.

Therefore, what is the meaning of the Law from which we have been freed and that does not save?

For St. Paul, as well as for all his contemporaries, the word “Law” meant the entire Torah, that is, the five books of Moses.

According to the interpretation of the Pharisees, the Torah involved — and this is what Paul studied and made his own — a collection of attitudes and actions that ranged from a core of ethics to ritual and cultural observances that determined, in essence, the identity of a righteous man, particularly circumcision, precepts regarding clean food and ritual cleanliness in general, rules regarding the observance of the Sabbath, etc.

These attitudes often came up during Jesus’ debates with his contemporaries.

All these observances, which expressed a certain social, cultural and religious identity, had achieved singular importance during the era of Hellenistic culture beginning in the third century before Christ.

This culture, which had become the universal culture of the time, was a seemingly rational culture, and, from all appearances, a tolerant polytheist culture. However, it constituted a strong force for cultural uniformity and it was, therefore, a threat to Israel’s identity.

For political reasons, Israel was forced to enter into the common identity of this Hellenistic culture, resulting in the loss of its own identity and the subsequent loss of the precious heritage of the faith of its fathers, of faith in the one God and in God’s promises.

In order to counter this cultural pressure, which not only threatened Jewish identity but also its faith in the one God and his promises, a wall of distinction and a shield of defense was needed in order to protect the precious heritage of faith. This wall consisted of observing all the Jewish precepts.

A People Set Apart

Paul, who had learned these observances precisely in their function as a defense of God’s gifts and of the heritage of faith in one true God, saw the freedom of the Christians as a threat to this identity: That is why he persecuted them.

During his encounter with the risen Christ, he realized, however, that the situation has changed radically with Christ’s resurrection. With Christ, the God of Israel — the one true God — became the God of all peoples.

The wall, he says in the Letter to the Ephesians, between Israel and the pagans was no longer necessary. Christ protects us against polytheism and all its deviations.

Christ unites us with and in the one true God. Christ guarantees our true identity within the diversity of cultures. The wall is no longer necessary. Our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just.

Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. That is all. The other precepts were no longer necessary.

For this reason, Luther’s use of the expression sola fide (faith alone) is true if faith is not placed in opposition to charity, to love.

Faith is looking at Christ, trusting in Christ, adhering to Christ, and being conformed to Christ and to his life. The form of Christ and of Christ’s life is love. Therefore, believing is being conformed to Christ and entering into his love.

That is why St. Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, where he developed to a large extent his doctrine on justification, speaks about faith that works through charity (see Galatians 5:14).

Love of God and Neighbor

Paul knows that the Law is present and fulfilled in a two-fold way — love of God and love of neighbor. Thus, the entire Law is fulfilled through communion with Christ and through faith that creates charity.

We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is love. We will see this in next Sunday’s Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel about the judge whose only criterion is love. All he asks is this: Did you visit me when I was sick or in prison? Did you give me food when I was hungry? Did you clothe me when I was naked?

Thus, justice is decided through charity. At the end of this Gospel, we can almost say: only love, only charity.

However, there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St. Paul. It is the same vision — a vision according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity.

Charity is the realization of communion with Christ. Thus, united with him, we are just — and in no other way.

In the end, we can only ask the Lord to help us to believe — to truly believe. Thus, belief becomes life, union with Christ and a transformation of our life.

Transformed by his love, by love for God and for our neighbor, we can truly be just in God’s eyes.

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